Chicago Theater Review: DEEP IN THE HEART OF TUNA (New American Folk Theatre at Pride Arts Center)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 10, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


Ever since 1981, small-town souls, Dixie doodles and atavistic Red State rednecks have fueled the fun in the Tuna trilogy. It’s a hilarious perpetration by adapter Ed Howard and original author-performers Joe Sears and Jaston Williams: Greater Tuna, A Tuna Christmas, and Red, White, and Tuna delivered laundry-line cross-dressing and sassy speech from a dozen drawling cracker stereotypes.

Two (Southern) generations later, the formula remains irresistible (if a tad dated): Rapidly switching from down-home dresses to cowboy dude wear and obligatory Stetsons, two male actors stir up a dysfunctional circus as they impersonate the denizens of “the third smallest town in Texas,” a dump “where the Lions’s Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never died.”

A Midwest premiere by the New American Folk Theatre, Deep in the Heart of Tuna is basically a two-act, 105-minute compilation mainly taken from the first two comedies. Celebrating the 35th anniversary of the original spoof, Deep is appropriately shallow, a panoply of casual animal cruelty, uncritical gun worship, inbred in-jokes, and assorted Lone Star lunacy.

More mannered than manic, the staging is by Derek Van Barham, fresh from co-directing Pride Plays’ popular Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, just next door. Happily, Deep never stoops to mock its easy targets. Hoisting themselves from their own petards, these are village inmates in a burg whose high school essay contests include such contributions as “Human Rights—Why Bother?” and “The Other Side of Bigotry.” (Sound eerily contemporary?) They turn Currier and Ives nostalgia into a mud-wrestling road rally for Bible thumping and monster trucks.

It’s enough to let two crafty actors send up stereotypes to the skies. Diabolically dowdy, Anthony Whitaker plays beleaguered mom Bertha Bumiller, specializing in tough-loving, manically maternal matrons always ready to settle for nothing. Playing the younger and, if conceivable, dopier characters, Grant Drager handles Arles, Didi, Stanley, Charlene, Jodi, Petey, Vera and Dixie, a set of birdbrain survivors who earn their place in Tuna for all the wrong reasons.

Together, the constantly changing twosomes lampooned by Drager and Whitaker deal with heavily pregnant cats and poisoned dogs, a tinsel-crazed vandal known as the “Christmas Phantom”: a once randy, now dead, judge buried in a fashionable swimsuit whose lying-in-state invites some retroactive recriminations; a Texas cheerleader mom who doesn’t give a hoot about her daughter’s popularity; feckless, two-timing husbands; and protecting chickens from harm.

Tuna is appropriately fishy: The anti-porn shenanigans of the local “Smut Snatchers” include exposing all the dirty words in Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” the local revival of which is threatened by a blackout from the failure to pay the light bill. It ends with a rather affecting Christmas Eve waltz between radio D.J. Arles and lonely, flustered Bertha: It’s a rare and endangered moment of friction-free tenderness in a town that fairly festers with failure and frustration.

It’s not the fault of Deep that ever since November 8th country-crude caricatures don’t seem as cute or harmless as they did in the last millennium. The thought that Greater Tuna and its environs could represent the future is grounds for insanity. Happily, it’s also an excuse to chuckle at the Clinton haters.

photos by Theodore Andrew Thomas

Deep in the Heart of Tuna
The Buena at Pride Arts Center, 4147 N. Broadway
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 3; Sat at 3 (Feb. 25 and March 4)
ends on March 5, 2017
for tickets, call 872.588.5760 or visit New American Folk Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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